Why PTO Donations Are Toxic and Dehumanizing

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PTO donations are when employees “donate” their accrued PTO to someone else. So when another employee has an emergency and doesn’t have enough PTO, they can get PTO donations in order to cover the time off.

PTO donations are typically used for:

  • A serious medical emergency
  • A natural disaster

There’s also a version where employees donate to a shared pool and then folks can draw from that pool when needed. And some donation programs allow folks to donate the value of their PTO to charity.

In other words, fellow employees sacrifice their PTO so that an employee in need can handle a challenging situation.

To me, PTO donations might be the most toxic idea in all of PTO.

Any HR professional or executive that’s advocating for PTO donations should not be in charge of HR policies of any kind.

I’m serious.

Think about the logistics of PTO donations:

  • What if an employee that donated PTO changes their mind? Is there a process to unwind this decision?
  • Are donated PTO hours paid out if they’re unused when a receiving employee leaves the company?
  • What if the recipient’s situation changes? Can they still hold the hours? For how long? Do they get returned?
  • What if the donating employee has an emergency after the donation but before the hours are used?
  • If you have a shared pool, what if multiple people request to use it and there’s not enough hours?
  • Are there limits to PTO donations? And how does it work with all your other PTO policies?
  • What happens if donations show a racial or other discriminatory bias? Will you monitor this? And how will you address it if you find it?
  • Who’s managing this on your team? Who’s keeping all the records and then handling any disagreements that come up?
  • Are you 100% sure that your specific PTO donation policies don’t run afoul of a federal, state, or city regulations for each employee?

The logistics are a mess.

I consider PTO donations to be a giant red flag. It’s a sign that a company doesn’t have an adequate PTO policy and is using a band-aid approach instead of doing the right thing.

Do you have enough PTO?

If you tell me that you have a PTO donation program, all I hear is “we don’t give employees enough PTO.”

I know that many companies consider two weeks as standard but that’s laughably low in my opinion. To me, three weeks (15 days) is the bare minimum.

If you’re not already offering 3 weeks, doing a PTO donation program is just employee exploitation. Instead of giving people a humane amount of time off, you’re asking some folks to sacrifice what little time they have for the few people that have serious emergencies throughout the year.

In other words, you’re telling everyone “you don’t get to take time off unless you have an emergency. Also, you have to beg your coworkers to donate their PTO.”

Start with a healthy amount of PTO, that will give you and your employees what they need to work effectively throughout the year.

PTO Donations are a Dereliction of Duty for HR

Look I get it. Even for small companies, emergencies come up where the standard leave policies don’t cover the situation.

When this happens, it’s reasonable for HR to think of PTO donations. Instead of dealing with the messiness of when to make exceptions and how to handle protracted emergencies, let employees sort it out themselves with a PTO donation bank.

The problem is that HR hasn’t actually solved anything. The employee with the emergency still doesn’t have enough PTO and is dealing with one of the most intense events of their life.

Who’s better equipped to deal with this situation? Career HR professionals or random employees that are just trying to make ends meet?

You! You’re the best equipped to deal with this. Not some random member of your Support team. I know it’s hard. And there’s risks. How do you avoid preference? When do you bend the rules or even break them? Is it better to hold the line and tell the employee nothing can be done? How bad of an emergency does it need to be? All extremely stressful decisions to sort through.

But that’s your job. That’s what you signed up for when starting a career in HR. And if you’re an executive or company owner, that’s also part of the job. You’re there to make the decisions that aren’t easy. If you want easy decisions, do something else with your career.

By adopting a PTO donation policy, you’re shirking your own responsibility in HR and forcing every employee to carry the weight of those same tough decisions. The only difference is that your employees are completely unprepared to carry that weight. You’re not, you have the skills and training to work through these tough situations.

Even if you don’t have the skills you need, go get them! Most of your employees definitely can’t.

PTO Donations Foster Exploitation Amongst Employees

Even worse, PTO donations open the door for exploitation between employees.

Some HR folks will claim that PTO donations foster a supportive family environment.

I’d be laughing if this wasn’t all so sad.

Let’s play this out and say I’m an entry-level marketer:

  • I just started at a new company 2 months ago.
  • I’m working from my home office trying to get a new campaign done.
  • I get a quick ping on Slack. A co-worker tells me they’re in the middle of a medical emergency.
  • This sounds terrible! I start thinking about which projects I can help out with in order to take some stuff off their plate.
  • Then the request comes: “would you be able to donate some of your PTO to help?”

What? That’s a thing? I want to help… But I need that PTO too. I have some family events coming up I was planning to use, flights are already booked. How bad is the medical emergency? If it’s really bad, of course I’ll help. I don’t have any details though. I’m also afraid to ask, it’s definitely not my place to question someone on a thing like this.

And what’s the expectation at this company? My coworker has been here awhile, they’re more senior than me. If I say no, will there be any repercussions? How will this come back at me later? Is everyone else donating?

Now I’m feeling waves of anxiety. I deeply feel for my coworker and want to help them. But giving up my own PTO feels like a step too far. Now I feel shame about not wanting to give up my PTO. And I’m really worried about how this plays out if I say no.

There are no good options. Either I saw yes at my expense or I feel awful about turning down a coworker in a time of need.

Some folks are good at protecting their own boundaries. Some aren’t, they’ll readily put the needs of others before their own. And a few folks will gladly exploit those around them.

With a PTO donation program, you’re encouraging people to push against all those boundaries. And for a few folks, they’ll push on everyone’s boundaries just because they can.

That’s not a supportive environment. That’s an exploitative environment.

PTO Donations are a PR Nightmare: A Whole Foods Case Study

On Mar 13, 2020, right as the covid pandemic was kicking off, the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, sent an email to all employees with guidance on how to handle the waves of sick time.

In this email, there was actually a really great policy announcement: an additional two weeks of paid sick time for employees that tested positive for Covid-19. In my opinion, it was a solid start at the beginning of a really tough couple of years.

However, Whole Foods wasn’t held up as a shining example of doing the right thing.

They were skewered.

As it turns out, Whole Foods already had a PTO donation program in place. And the CEO listed it as another option to get relief during the start of the pandemic.

Vice (Motherboard) reported on the CEO’s email and started a chain reaction of negative PR. Business Insider and Eater both reported on the PTO donation program and how horrible it sounded.

Instead of talking about the extra two weeks of paid sick time, everyone talked about how the CEO suggested employees beg their coworkers for PTO donations during a once-in-a-generation pandemic.

A few additional things to keep in mind:

  • The PTO donation policy had been in place since the 1980’s, way before Amazon acquired Whole Foods. It was nothing new.
  • Covid should have been the perfect time for PTO donation pools to shine. They’re designed for extreme situations and a pandemic is about as extreme as it gets.
  • The email included 6 suggestions on how to respond to the emerging pandemic. Everyone seized on the PTO donation program and ignored the rest.

And I agree with the media on this one. When there’s a national emergency, the first major pandemic in over 100 years, and the entire country is being shut down, telling people to “donate their PTO for sick colleagues” is extremely tone deaf. Whole Foods deserved every bit of negative PR.

In my opinion, that tone deafness applies to any type of emergency. An employee is going through hell and HR’s response is “beg for PTO from your fellow employees.” It sounds and feels horrible. PTO donations ARE horrible.

What to do Instead of PTO Donations

Hopefully I’ve convinced you not to roll out a PTO donations program.

So what do we do instead?

I’d work through these steps:

  1. Make sure every employee has access to at least three weeks of PTO per year. Any less than that and people won’t have enough PTO to handle normal life events. That means more “emergencies” that demand the attention of HR. I also believe that stress cascades. If little events aren’t handled right away, they fester and compound into bigger issues. Left unchecked, they become major emergencies later. So give people the flexibility they need to handle life.
  2. Get solid leave policies in place for bereavement, jury duty, and parental leave. At my companies, I’ve offered 10 days for bereavement, as-needed jury duty, and 16 weeks for parental. Even the smallest companies have these events occur somewhat regularly. Get ahead of them and put additional paid leave benefits for each. That way folks can still use their normal PTO for atypical events.
  3. Communicate to your employees that health and family come first. Got a real emergency? Send a quick note to your manager and then go deal with what’s in front of you. Once you can breathe, the manager and HR will figure out what to do. This will do a few things for you. First, it sets a humane tone across the company. This will be deeply appreciated by folks. Second, it encourages communication from the beginning. Your team will know something intense is happening right away. That allows everyone to come up with the best next steps instead of setting an expectation that employees are on their own.
  4. When disasters impact multiple people, consider one-time benefits that help the whole company. Covid is a perfect example of this, offering additional sick time during a pandemic made a lot of sense. We didn’t do that ourselves and I wish we had. For an event with a lot of uncertainty, you can timebox the benefit to give you flexibility. Like offering an extra 10 days of sick time just for 2020, then reviewing the policy again going into 2021.
  5. Accept that written policies can’t cover every life event. Sooner or later, something really crazy happens and your standard policies won’t make sense. You’ll always need to review some events on a case-by-case basis and decide what you want to do. This is part of the job of HR. Maybe you help out more than you’ve promised, maybe you hold line of your policies. Either way, you should set the expectation with your HR team that working through the decision is part of their responsibilities. Setting up a PTO donation plan doesn’t solve anything, it just pushes the problem onto people that aren’t prepared to deal with it.

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